What U Wearing? Fashion Expectations on Women and Non Binary DJs
Words: Keeley Hudd
One of my first “proper” bookings as a DJ was an opening set at a techno/electro night. I had been asked to play by one of my closest friends and this can be an issue in itself as a womxn in electronic music, but we’ll touch on that later. It was a pretty small event held in the basement of a local café, but it had already built a strong reputation in the few months since its debut and I knew some heads would be in attendance. Like most artists preparing for a set, in the days running up I spent hours scrolling through music platforms, searching for the tracks that were going to make or break my introduction to the local culture. But for me, the preparation had actually started weeks before this. In fact, I’d say it started the day I was asked to play, with the age-old dreaded question – “what am I going to wear?”
By now most people have at least some level of awareness that existing as a womxn in the music industry is a difficult job. If I went into explaining the literal hundreds of obstacles we have to overcome every day just to fight for our place in the scene, I would need to write an A-Z series encyclopedia that would be rejected by every single publishing house for being “too emotional” – but I digress. Of the many unfair, contradictory expectations that impact womxn in music every day; in the wider “electronic music” scenes, dress-code and aesthetic expectations are arguably ones which directly impact us almost immediately. This is more than the issue of feeling unsafe wearing a short skirt in the club; although this point should be considered as a sub-category of the wider issue. Some of us are afraid of wearing a short skirt or a low-cut top to our sets, hyper-aware of the many bobbing heads in front of us holding eyes that bore into our chests as we hunch over a CDJ to hunt for the next tune. Wondering how we’ll hold off the promoter who’s just come to “check-in” but has pressed you up into the corner of the booth. Planning our polite “the mixer’s over there mate” to the bloke playing next who has conveniently grabbed your arse for support as he leans over to plug his USB in thirty minutes before his set is supposed to begin.
And what of the womxn who want to wear tight dresses for their set? Who enjoy dressing up and dancing along to the tunes they’ve so carefully chosen for everybody else to enjoy? Then they’re snubbed, obviously, as words like ‘groupie’ and ‘girlfriend’ are thrown around like synonyms rather than straight up insults. “How else could they have gotten that set?” Not on pure merit, of course. “Shx definitely shagged the promoter to be here.” “Why else would they be wearing that?” “Why would shx wear make-up if shx’s just going to sweat it off?” “A hot pink crop top? That’s not very techno of hxr.” Oh, how the plot thickens.
Firstly, let’s just quickly address the fact that what a womxn does with hxr body is absolutely none of your fucking business; and if shx uses hxr physicality to get ahead in this game, why not? The rising numbers of femxle-focused collectives such as femme culture and Concrete Jungyals are a direct result of male promoters and crews overlooking the vast pool of local femxle-talent, instead offering sets to their carbon-copy mates. If a womxn chooses to use sexuality to grab a male promoters attention and notice hxr talent, then that says more about the inherent endemic sexism of the music and events industry, not femxle DJ’s.
Now that’s out of the way, let’s try and navigate the impossible spiderweb of mixed messages and aesthetic expectations pushed onto underground womxn/NB DJ’s every day. When endless Twitter threads mock Nina Kraviz for “dressing like a supply teacher”, critique her skills and then say that she is still worth a ticket because she’s ‘fit’ – all in the same breath – how could womxn ever know where we stand when it comes to our aesthetic choices? Peggy Gou has discussed dressing down at the beginning of her career, playing in strictly jeans and t-shirts for fear of not being taken seriously otherwise. Nowadays, Gou and other artists such as Sita Abellan launch outgoing and eccentric fashion lines appraised by the likes of designer-come-DJ Virgil Abloh. Is it only okay for womxn artists to express themselves through their clothing once they’ve done the very most to prove themselves as DJ’s first? Considering the burden of doubt faced by womxn in male-dominated industries, this pretty much doubles the amount of work we have to put in before it’s deemed acceptable for us to wear…anything.
Gou’s fear of not being taken seriously simply because of an outfit choice continues to resonate with the womxn facilitating the culture at a grassroots, local level. As part of my own research into the barriers womxn and non-binary DJ’s face, conversations with other womxn about our experiences always raised the topic of dress-code; with many other DJ’s sharing with me that they often chose plain casual wear with neutral colours to play a set, aiming to catch as little attention as possible so the dancers and promoters would purely focus on the music. But sadly, we still see negative results for womxn such as LCY who has stated that the decision to scrap her old signature surgical mask came from only being known for a piece of fabric over her face and not for her music or skills. Whatever we wear, we still lose.
We could just fall in line with the standard DJ uniform we see repeatedly on our Instagram feeds – head to toe Carhartt finished off with a tiny rolled up hat that wouldn’t stand a chance of gripping to longer tresses smoothed down with shea butter. This aesthetic completely works for artists like SHERELLE, and that is fantastic. But, if this isn’t us then why should we sacrifice our individual self-expression and identity, our comfort, and our money just to be taken seriously as a DJ? Also further raising the question of SHERELLE’s well-deserved rise to fame being at all influenced by white cis-male members of the scene actually respecting a womxn DJ more because she fits their idea of aesthetic? Yet, the amount of times I have heard “all girl DJ’s are lesbians” as if it holds negative connotations because the person playing is wearing similar clothing to the men is astounding. Can someone please just tell me what the rules are?
As a working-class, plus-size, genderqueer person with hip dips and an arse that just won’t quit, a pair of £90 trousers that only go up to 30” waist really isn’t going to do it for me. This seems like the perfect time to point out that gender inequality within the scene also majorly intersects with classism and economic privilege (and of course, racism). Where dance music was once a source of escapism from the mundane working week and an expression of the marginalised experience – not just with music, but with handmade, original fashion statements; now we face a hierarchal system of value based on high-end street brand names and paying extortionate prices to look the right kind of poor, whilst genuinely struggling creatives are shunned and their authentic experience ignored.
So, what did I wear for the gig? Does it even matter? As much as I regret wearing the outfit I did; feeling that it was the cause of me not being taken seriously by a number of partygoers and DJ’s that night – in the long run, does it even matter what I wore? Would it have made any difference? Perhaps all they saw was a femxle DJ, a gxrl booked by hxr mate; and their minds were made up before they even knew it.
After this particular gig, whilst interviewing one of the friends that had booked me some time later for my own research into gender inequality in my local scene, I brought up my experience and how I felt my set had been ruined by what I wore. I was totally shocked to see that they were totally shocked. Someone who, I’ll give it to them, is pretty on it when it comes to recognising the huge differences in our experiences and does work to bridge that gap. But, this had never crossed his mind. The systemic misogyny within the music industry and the culture that surrounds it is multi-faceted and complex. The only way we can begin to overcome the whole issue is by dissecting the smaller elements of it – so there’s your reason to wear the dress, wear the boots, put on your favourite shade of lippy, play in joggers, play in lingerie, play in your dressing gown! Arguably, the UK’s dance music culture is one of the most forward thinking in the world. The sounds we create, the images associated with them; and the fashion embedded within dance music culture has historically looked beyond social expectations. In a time where it feels like our rights as womxn are regressing at lightning speed, maybe we can reclaim one positive thing from the culture's history and move past marginalising dress codes and expectations.
Keeley DJ’s under the alias keeleyallcaps, and is currently undertaking a Masters degree in music whilst organising a community project helping young womxn and NB people take their first step into the world of music tech. They are co-founder of Bristol-based collective and online radio station Longthrow, which aims to give marginalised creatives a platform within the scene. You can check out their website and station at www.longthrowcurates.co.uk, or follow their socials @longthrow.